Served with love

What's Cooking, Dubai?

Served with love

Every city wears a perfume, its unique fragrance that wafts inside elevators and lingers around road bends, guiding the five senses to notice more about itself. When in Dubai, bakhoor (burner incense) scents intermingle with the musky smell of oud (fragrant oil). But, allow this smell to settle in your nostril and you’ll get the irresistible fragrance of a table set with multi-cuisine fare.

From Egyptian khusari, Polish bread with cheese and mushrooms to its own Emirati cuisine of majboos, ligaimat and harees, the city serves an exotic spread, so I recommend you nurse a big appetite. With so much to eat, and just one stomach, the trick is to prepare oneself for one dish at a time.

On the course

I began my sojourn on a healthy note, at Comptoir 102, a health eatery on Jumeirah. First up was a trending dish, the Acai Bowl laden with Amazon berries, chocolate, almond milk, banana and coconut milk. Wholesome and fruity, it was a fresh start to the day. With a fix of avocado and buckwheat pancakes, it was time to hit the weekly Saturday Ripe Market at Zabeel Park. Yoga instructors guide participants to perform asanas, colourful stalls sell feel-good things like dreamcatchers, and food trucks tantalise customers with the aroma of delicious cooking.

From Greek fare of gyro/souvlaki to mini Nutella pancakes, the trucks see a hungry hoard placing order after order. Just walking around and soaking in the sight of a blanket of bright green grass, the shade of palm trees and colourful stalls lifts my spirits. The spot has been a litmus test for most food start-ups to test-drive their ideas.

I stop to try a Lebanese-style bone broth, honey from Syria, and chocolates made of camel milk. Locals pick up their weekly shopping of organic vegetables, fresh oranges, passion fruit and season’s greens. The bone broth is earthy and throws up hints of bay leaf, thyme and grape juice. From an adjoining stall, I try a spoonful of honey that sweetens my palate instantly.

The evening I spend at Global Village, with 83 countries represented through their food, clothes and knick-knacks. In Palestine, I come across an aubergine pickle stuffed with olives and walnuts. Soaked in a salty vinegar brine, I try a bit with a wrap and sour cream. The shopkeeper packs it for me in a tight container to take home. While I stroll from one country to another, I come across a stall that sells a waffle burger. Sky is the limit for food ideas in Dubai, I conclude.

Buds are after...

But it is the Emirati cuisine my taste buds are after, and I get a taste the next day. At the Beach Canteen, I dig into the sweet delicacy luqaimat, sweet dough-balls topped with date molasses. They are soft like a gulab jamun inside and crisp like a doughnut on the outside. The samboosa, the real version of our samosas, comes stuffed with beef filling and pomegranate chutney.

The trendier cheese-and-spinach version is delectable too. The afternoon is well-spent in a masterclass with Queen of Arab Kitchen, chef Manal Al Alem, who takes us through Emirati cuisine as she cooks us fireed (vegetables cooked in meat broth), machboos (rice and chickpea with a whole chicken fillet), and a deep-tasting shrimp soup called rubiyan.

With the Dubai Food Festival having wrapped up its fourth edition this year, locals get to choose their favourite hidden gem in their city. A visit to the Lebanese joint Ka’ak Al Manara in Jumeirah Road and I know why it was the top pick. I have the pleasure of meeting its founder Ziyak Ayaz, who introduces us to a sesame bread ka’ak.

Unlike its more popular cousin Arabic bread wrap manakish, ka’ak was unknown to the rest of the world. Ayaz is the first one to introduce it to Dubai at the Ripe Market two years ago. “Made of wheat flour and sesame, it is dairy-free and vegan,” he explains, adding that the bag-like shape is a practical form for sellers to hang the bread on their bicycles back home. Of the many flavours we try, we like the authentic pickle and spread salty cheese topped with sumac.

At the Street Nights during the food festival, a Polish stall sells sautéed mushrooms on a bed of herbed tomato sauce topped with cheese. This, I wash down with a charcoal lemonade. When I show the owner some doubt before taking a sip, she eggs me on: “It is good for you, drink up.” It is lemony, and the black bits settle at the bottom of the cup, thankfully. A crowd has gathered around Dukkan Sharq, an Egyptian street food restaurant that is serving kushari — a regional dish of rice, pasta and lentil. I get myself a box, and it comes topped with fried onions and dunked in a chilli tomato sauce.

The combination has a deep taste, and doesn’t feel like a shallow fusion at all.

My last meal is at the Michelin-star chef Atul Kochchar’s restaurant in Dubai. Executive chef Armish Sood tells me, “We have three levels of spice. When we take the order, we ask the customer what they prefer.” A fair deal, I must agree.

The tawe kee champen (pan-grilled lamb chops in pepper marinade) and sweet-and-tangy aloo chaat, and Kerala-style chicken are authentically prepared and served in a modern style.
India has been well represented. On that note, I fall into a deep food coma.

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